This article was published in the July 2023 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our July digital edition.
Consumers are evaluating the nutrition in their pets’ foods with the same scrutiny they use when purchasing their own food, and processors are responding by providing products specifically designed for each stage in the life of a cat or dog. The nutritional needs of pets grow and change dramatically throughout their lives, and products tailored to each of these stages help boost their health and wellbeing.
“As a pet grows and ages from puppy to adult to senior — the three key life stages — their nutritional needs change,” said Danielle Bernal, global veterinarian for Wellness Pet Company, Tewksbury, Mass. “If we are all about promoting true health and wellbeing, we need to make sure we aren’t feeding them all the same food.”
Eating right from the start
Bernal said puppy formulations are primarily focused on growth and development by tailoring macronutrients including proteins and carbohydrates to meet the needs of dogs as they grow. Adding antioxidants and vitamins for immune health, DHA for brain development, and probiotics for a healthy microbiome are essential to helping give puppies the best start in life, she said.
Canada-based Petcurean’s offerings include a puppy recipe in its GO! SOLUTIONS line featuring animal protein to support growing muscles as well as probiotics and prebiotics for digestion. Additionally, the kibble format of the product is ideal for small puppy teeth.
Kitten formulations are developed with many of the same considerations that are central to puppy products, but Bernal said offering a wide variety of flavors and forms in wet foods can help cats gain an appreciation for a range of tastes from a young age.
“It’s about nutrition, yes, but it’s also about setting them up for the future so when they feed on different wet forms and flavors as an adult, they may be more willing to eat all of those and be content,” Bernal said.
The ORIJEN and ACANA puppy and kitten recipes from Canada-based Champion Petfoods have nutrients from fish ingredients like EPA and DHA to promote healthy brain development as well as retinal function and development. Using high-quality protein from both fresh and raw animal sources also helps promote muscle and bone growth, said Billy Frey, director of marketing at Champion.
As a puppy grows into an adult, it’s important to focus on the specific lifestyle of the pet and the biological differences across the range of breed sizes from chihuahuas to Irish wolfhounds, Bernal said.
“While the adult stage sounds like one block, it has nuances to it behind those breed sizes and lifestyles and the overall health of the pet,” she explained.
Through its Diamond Naturals brand, Diamond Pet Foods offers formulations for both small and large breed puppies and adults as well as a formulation for seniors. The brand also offers formulations for kittens and both active and indoor cats.
“Puppy and kitten formulas contain the necessary protein and fat to fuel growing bodies as well as DHA to support brain and vision development,” said John Kampeter, vice president of marketing and sales for Diamond Pet Foods. “Owners with senior pets who may need a formula with guaranteed levels of glucosamine and chondroitin to help support aging joints and cartilage can benefit from a senior life-stage formula.”
Petcurean’s GO! SOLUTIONS line also provides options for large-breed adults that includes salmon to support strong muscles, glucosamine and chondroitin to maintain healthy joints, and L-carnitine to support heart health and fat burning.
“Large breed dogs, in particular, have some unique physiological differences that must be taken into account when creating a recipe specific for them, such as including ingredients that support a healthy weight and mobile joints,” said Natalie Asaro, nutrition manager for Petcurean.
“Large breed dogs in particular have some unique physiological differences that must be taken into account when creating a recipe specific for them,” said Natalie Asaro, Petcurean.
Large-breed puppies require controlled levels of calcium and phosphorus to ensure healthy bone growth as they grow exponentially during their first 18 months of life, Asaro shared. Large-breed adult dogs are also prone to obesity, have a slower metabolism and are often lower in energy, so ingredients to support fat-burning like L-carnitine are important. Asaro also said glucosamine, chondroitin and New Zealand green mussels can be beneficial for healthy joints.
Taking care of seniors
The senior stage is a large part of a pet’s life, but the market for products specifically for senior pets is highly underdeveloped. In fact, Bernal said 55% of all pets in the United States are seniors, but only 8% of category sales are of products designed for senior pets. Products for seniors are also the most confusing to pet parents because they are often reluctant to think of their pets as reaching that stage.
“With great quality nutrition, great medical care, a loving home and environment, our pets — even though they may be a senior — still look amazing,” she said.
Still, Bernal noted there are changes going on inside their bodies, and pet parents need to be educated about the benefits of providing their cats and dogs with senior formulations. Such foods offer the right nutrition for all their aging needs such as for hips and joints and immune health while providing additional protein and reduced fat.
Senior diets from Champion Petfoods’ ORIJEN and ACANA brands are high in protein from animal ingredients to promote lean muscle mass, and they also contain a lower fat content for weight management.
“Senior cats have lower energy requirements compared to kittens, meaning their diets should contain less fat, calories and certain minerals like phosphorus, but still high in quality animal protein for muscle support,” Frey said. “We aim to keep supplementation at a minimum, relying on nutrients from quality ingredients instead.”
Hilmar Ingredients, Hilmar, Calif., has learned from its experience developing products for human foods that two challenges in nutrition for an aging population include protein absorption and protein synthesis, and they discovered these same challenges are relevant to aging dogs.
“Our product portfolio on the human side is highly effective in addressing these challenges, so we wanted to build on our experience and develop a product that can improve protein absorption and body composition of canines,” said Marina Crocker, senior director for product category and marketing with Hilmar Ingredients.
The result was the development of PROtelyze Pet for senior dogs, a proprietary formulation of whey protein designed to assist with the aging process. Crocker said the company hopes to change the perception of pet food ingredients that are high in whey protein. Traditionally, whey proteins have been associated with dairy ingredients that have proven not to be popular with cats and dogs.
“Our goal is to help pet formulators see high whey proteins not just as a dairy product, but as ingredients filled with bioactive compounds that can support our pet’s wellbeing as they do for us humans,” Crocker said.
Hilmar Ingredients also offers PROfraction MFGM as a protein enriched with milk fat globule membrane that offers humans benefits including brain development in babies and anti-inflammatory and immune function benefits in adults. Some studies have also indicated MFGM could help regenerate nerves. This ability to aid the human population could translate into benefits for pets, but while the anti-inflammatory properties and support with nerve regeneration could be used to address mobility issues in aging pets, Crocker said more study is needed to prove the benefits.
Developing a holistic approach
Overall, formulating recipes for various life stages requires specific nutritional needs to be addressed while maintaining a focus on the right combination and balance of ingredients for the specific animal, Asaro said.
“It’s important to remember that it’s the nutrients in a recipe that a pet requires,” she said. “It’s not the individual ingredients but how they work together to provide the nutrients. This is critical for the healthy development of pets. For example, our puppy recipes offer a blend of premium-quality ingredients such as salmon and salmon oil that are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids to support cognitive development.”
Crocker said it can be costly for most ingredient companies to develop products for pet age cohorts, so knowing the specific needs of senior pets can eliminate the risks of such investments and boost innovation in the area. This provides an opportunity for pet food companies to partner with ingredient manufacturers to address the needs of aging pets, Crocker added.
Formulations might begin focusing on genomics and tailoring nutrition to the actual biology of a pet, but Bernal said that’s still in the future. For now, the focus remains on age cohorts, responding to what’s happening in pets’ bodies, boosting the microbiome, and supporting overall health to ensure pets are healthy their entire lives.
“Pet parents are learning that a nutritious, balanced and biologically appropriate diet supports the overall health of their pet, and feeding based on life stage is essential to help them reach their full potential,” Frey said. “The humanization trend has also been a major driver in this category, with pet parents equating puppy or kitten diets akin to feeding baby food to a baby — a natural choice among many parents.”
Read more about product development, ingredients and formulation.